LA CEIBA, Honduras (AFP) — Powerful Hurricane Felix roared towards Honduras and Nicaragua Tuesday as authorities moved thousands of locals and tourists from the coasts to minimise the potentially devastating impact.
Packing winds of 240 kilometers (150 miles) per hour, the hurricane was expected to gain strength before striking the Central American nations' border region early Tuesday, according to the US National Hurricane Center.
The massive hurricane, a category four storm on a five-level scale, has rekindled bitter memories of Hurricane Mitch, which killed 9,000 people and displaced 2.5 million in the region -- mostly in Honduras -- in 1998.
"This system by far does not have the dimensions Hurricane Mitch had, but it still has a lot of power and energy that could cause extremely serious material damages and human loss," Honduran President Manuel Zelaya said.
At 0600 GMT, the "extremely dangerous" Felix was 165 kilometers (100 miles) from the border and threatened to grow back into a maximum category five storm, the US hurricane center said.
Felix had strengthened from category two to five in a record 15 hours on Sunday.
More than 12,000 people in threatened areas of Honduras and Nicaragua were ordered to find shelter as the storm approached.
Several hundred tourists were also evacuated aboard boats and planes from the Honduran islands of Roatan and Guanaja, popular with scuba divers.
Honduras and Nicaragua, among the poorest countries in the Americas, are especially vulnerable to natural disasters as many homes are built with weak material and are located in flood-prone areas.
Felix was expected to make landfall in the tropical forest inhabited by Miskito Indians who live in fragile coastal homes.
Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital of one million people, prepared to evacuate areas vulnerable to floods and landslides.
In northern Honduras, people scrambled to gas stations and supermakets to stock up on supplies.
"We do not know how long supermarkets will be closed after the hurricane," Teresa Nolasco, a 52-year-old teacher, said as she filled the trunk of her car after standing in line for three hours at the supermaket.
"We will be listening to the radio and pray, hoping we won't relive another Mitch," she said.
In the northern coast town of La Ceiba, seafront restaurants and bars remained open late despite the treat.
"We are taking advantage until the last moment, but we will work all night to protect anything that can be damaged," said Mario Guevara, 36, owner of La Palapa restaurant.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said he was cutting short a visit to Panama to lead emergency efforts, while UN and other aid officials said they stood ready to assist.
Carlos Scaramella, the World Food Program representative in San Salvador, said the UN agency had enough food stocks to feed 100,000 people for the first five days of an emergency.
Forecasters expected that after hitting land, the hurricane would swirl fairly close to the Honduran coast, emerge in the Bay of Honduras, make landfall in Belize on Wednesday morning and continue inland to Guatemala and then Mexico.
In Belize, authorities declared a state of emergency over the entire country and called for volunteers to help "protect life and property."
Over the weekend, the hurricane damaged homes and downed power lines in Grenada, and lashed Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao with heavy winds, though there were no immediate reports of casualties.
Meanwhile, Mexico braced for a hit on its Pacific coast as Tropical Storm Henriette, which already killed seven people, looked set to strengthen into a hurricane as it barreled toward the Baja California peninsula, which is dotted with tourist resorts.
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